So you want to live on a boat?

There are many things to consider before you decide to live on the water, these are just some of them:
More information is available in our publication Living Afloat.

Frequently Asked Questions.

Why do you want to live on a boat?

You may have experienced the inland waterways on holiday or on a day out – enjoying the view of gaily painted boats, talking to people on board and thinking it would be a wonderful way of life. Or you may have seen TV programmes or newspaper articles about this lifestyle, usually describing top of the range boats in glorious weather. But many boats are built to a far more basic fit-out and the chores of emptying the toilet and filling up the water tank in wet and freezing conditions are far less attractive.

How much does it cost to live on a boat?

If the most important issue to you is whether it is cheaper than living in a house, then we suggest that you think about it again. Cost is obviously a consideration, but it is equally important to have an affinity with the inland waterways, their culture, heritage and environment. There is as much variation in the cost of living as with any other lifestyle. It can depend on the type of boat and how you are purchasing it, your cruising pattern or mooring location and facilities required, plus the fuel and other services that you will need. Of course, because boats normally have less space than houses, you should use less power and whilst on the move, you can produce electricity and sometimes hot water from the engine.

What about a mooring?

This is probably the main consideration before taking up a life afloat. If you are fortunate enough not to be tied to one area, you may not need a permanent mooring and you can undertake ‘continuous cruising’ within the requirements set out by the navigation authority. However, if you need to be based in one area, for instance for work or school, then we advise you to find a suitable mooring. This can be a big problem in some areas, particularly London and the south east where moorings are in short supply and if available can be very expensive.

What other issues will I need to consider?

You will need a current registration or licence from the relevant navigation authority, depending on where you wish to use your boat. Many everyday matters in life today tend to be based on living in a house with a fixed address, so you will find some inconveniences. These can all be resolved but need thinking about. Many live-aboards retain a land base to resolve matters such as delivery of post and this can be used to register on the electoral role. Depending on your mooring situation you many be liable to pay Council Tax and the RBOA can advise on this and many other concerns, such as doctors and obtaining prescriptions.

So what should I do next?

We suggest you try out living afloat. A holiday hire boat can be very different from a residential boat, but will give you some idea of the restricted space aboard and whether you really enjoy cruising and working the locks. Talk to as many people as possible – waterways folk are always happy to share their boating experiences and boatbuilders their knowledge of suitable craft. Waterways magazines are a good source of information on boats for sale, both new and second hand. BW/EA can provide information on marinas in a particular area but they may not have approval and facilities for residential use, so it is best to travel around and discuss your requirements with the marina operators. The RBOA is a friendly organisation always prepared to help on the many issues associated with living afloat and membership will give you continued advice and other advantages.

What type of boat is best?

That depends on what you want from it – cruising narrow canals, voyaging round the British coasts, staying moored with all the comforts of a modern flat?  It also depends on where you want to live – do you prefer a canal, a river or tidal waters?

How should I evaluate my boat?

Making the purchase is usually safest if a full survey is carried out by a qualified surveyor.  For many inland waters, the boat will have to comply with the newly-introduced Boat Safety Scheme (for some older boats, bringing the boat up tostandard for compliance may be expensive).

How can I find out more?

Easy! Living Afloat published by the RBOA. (Click here for ordering details)

Also, the Canal Boatbuilders Association publish a free booklet called How to buy a boat for canal or river (although their web page seems to have disappeared for the moment)

Who Lives On Boats?

About 15,000 people are thought to live afloat in Great Britain.  They are found throughout the canals, rivers and coasts; in cities, in the country and in harbours.  Some cruise continuously, some are permanently moored and the others mix cruising and mooring to suit themselves.Liveaboards come from all walks of life:  families to pensioners, professionals to artists to boatbuilders.  Some live in narrow boats, some in sea-going craft, some in houseboats.  Their homes may be owned (possibly with the aid of a loan) or rented.

Liveaboards are attracted to their lifestyle for many reasons, including:

  • the economies of combining home with pleasure
  • the closeness to Nature
  • the camaraderie
  • the escape from day-to-day pressures of life ashore

Academic research has shown that liveaboards are not a sub-culture; actually they are a very diverse group.  Often they have a strong sense of their local community and its environment.

Finance and Insurance

Raising the finance to buy a floating home can call for ingenuity and persistence.  Regrettably, it is not easy to raise finance which is backed solely by the boat itself.

Most people find it easier to raise finance from their current bank or building society, for example, or they look to see what’s on offer in the High Street or in the newspapers.  Other people use specialist providers of finance for boats – these advertise regularly in the boating magazines.  Another route to finance is to seek support from relatives or friends or to raise money on a house.

As far as possible, take care to understand what’s on offer and see that it’s a good deal.

Insuring a boat is essential. The basic insurance required for boats on most waterways (including BW and EA waters) typically doesn’t cover contents, or at least probably won’t provide enough cover. A recent survey of the boat is usually a prerequisite.

I have a boat already …

How do I find a mooring?

The RBOA does not have a list of available residential moorings. However, the main monthly canal magazines publish annual lists and also see the Canal & River Trust website.

But I don’t know how to drive it!

Obviously if you have a permanent mooring you don’t have to go anywhere but if you have a boat that’s capable of movement, why not make use of it?

You could do the RYA Inland Waterway Helmsmans Certificate (more details are here). There are always some advertisments for this in the waterways magazines or visit the RYA web site which has a list of centres running this course.

Landlords and Liveaboards

Some liveaboards cruise continuously and others own their moorings.  For most liveaboards, however, having a landlord for a  mooring is one of life’s inevitabilities.  Folk living on canals may well have Canal & River Trust as a direct, or possibly indirect, landlord.  Other liveaboards have a multiplicity of landlords whose performance is as diverse as the human race itself.

Getting a mooring is best approached with as much care as getting the boat itself.  It can be difficult in some places to find a mooring that is recognised as being residential (i.e. It has planning oerission for residential use from the relevant local council).  Moorings unofficially residential also exist and people make up their own minds about their desirability.  If the boat comes with a mooring, do check the mooring terms on offer.

Many landlords will require an agreement to be signed – read it before signing it.  Both landlords and liveaboards have their rights and responsibilities; hopefully the basis of any agreement between them is a nice balance of each parties’ interests.

The RBOA, in tandem with the London Rivers Association, drew up  ‘Getting Residential Moorings Right’, practical guidelines for those involved in planning, setting up and running a residential mooring (£11.50, p&p inc.).  Phone the LRA on 020 8293 9275.

Another relevant publication is ‘Making Mooring Agreements Work’, which contains specimen mooring agreement clauses with commentary explaining the reasons for each clause and its pros and cons in practice. (Click here for ordering details)

Taxes and Voting

Based on examples known to the RBOA (and we’re not joking), there are three ways in which a local Council might view a liveaboard for Council Tax purposes:

  • the liveaboard is not liable for Council Tax;
  • the liveaboard is liable for Council Tax; or
  • the landlord is liable for Business Rates but the liveaboard is not liable for Council Tax.

The situation is still evolving and some of the guidelines are vague – RBOA members can call for advice.  There are cases where an RBOA member paying Council Tax has successfully claimed a refund of Council Tax for each night they spent away from their mooring.

Some liveaboards have taken out loans to buy their homes and claim tax relief on the interest charged on those loans. They can do this where it is their primary residence.

Some liveaboards hesitate to register to vote – don’t!  A floating voter’s voice should be heard as much as anybody else’s.  Remember – only liveaboards are truly floating voters.  (Never confuse people whose homes float with people whose votes float!)

Planning for Residential Boating

Local authorities may find it is worth planning to attract residential boats as they can benefit society at large by:

  • providing a measure of security through their presence
  • monitoring the environment and alerting the authorities to emerging problems
  • generating life and interest in the waterways, harbours and coasts
  • restoring and maintaining historic boats
  • providing diversity and choice in private sector housing
  • generating a stream of income from mooring fees, etc.

Attracting residential boats is straightforward – accessible water with a sound mooring is the minimum.  A supply of water is appreciated, as is garbage disposal, but many boats can move to reach these facilities if they are not readily available.  (Boats on inland waters, and many coastal boats, retain their sewage for subsequent disposal).

Residential boats can be valuable in re-colonising an urban area abandoned for habitation.  Residential boats can quickly establish an on-going presence, and provide interest and fascination to visitors to the waterside.  In a marina, a mix of residential and non-residential boats can be ideal – the liveaboards provide security, the intervening pleasure craft provide privacy.